I was never a huge Real World fan, but growing up in the '90s — which seems like the dark ages now — it was always on my radar because it was practically a beacon in terms of LGB representation. In the third season Pedro Zamora filled this role. He came out HIV-positive on the show.
I hadn’t thought about Zamora in years, then Trump signed his immigration ban last week and Zamora’s good friend and fellow The Real World: San Francisco star Judd Winick posted this reminder that Zamora arrived on the shores of the U.S. as a refugee immigrant fleeing Cuba:
Zamora's death was a big deal to all of us at the time, especially those of us in high school and college. I remember my housemate, (and now best-selling young adult novelist) Hannah Rodgers Barnaby, and the other women I lived with in college, bawling when Zamora died from AIDS-related conditions on November 11, 1994 soon after the season ended.
"This is the gift of open borders," Barnaby says now, recalling those days. "This is the great miracle of immigration, that a 19-year-old white girl from upstate New York was given the chance to witness the passionate activism of a Cuban immigrant living with AIDS. I never met Pedro Zamora, but he taught me and millions of others to open our hearts and our eyes to those who were suffering. He was able to share his grace because he was able to share our country. And we were all better for it.”
“Pedro caught my attention for two reasons," remembers Danny Roberts, the super hot gay cast member on The Real World: New Orleans, Season 9. "One, he was an incredibly likable guy who spoke with passion and reason, which brought a human face to an issue that had otherwise been an abstract distant concept to most of us at that time, including me. Second, he showed this small town boy from rural Georgia that HIV wasn't some evil curse cast on the undeserving, which is pretty much all my environment at the time taught me. He brought out so much empathy; I remember feeling crushed when he died. It was the first time HIV seemingly personally touched my life."
Above: Danny Roberts, summer of 2001, Wilmington, North Carolina
I spoke to Winick about his post and what he felt he could add to the conversation.
“To be honest," Winick says, "I can't think of anything that I could possibly add to the conversation that isn't being said by thousands, if not millions of people around the country. Maybe that is my point. And [it's] a hopeful one: Trump has been in office for just over a week and there's been two, count 'em two, major national protests. People are pushing back. People are fighting back. People are demanding to be heard. That said, and stating the obvious, this is a country that was built on immigrants. And I felt the need to express that in my personal experience, in my life, I know of one immigrant who literally changed millions of lives. If Pedro Zamora has not been allowed to come to the United States, so many people would've been deprived. So many people would not be living the lives they are living now. I know it might sound like hyperbole, but for 22 years I have heard from people who have said just that, "Pedro Zamora changed my life.'"
In the more than two decades since that Real World season, Winick has gone on to a successful comic book and writing career, penning the best selling Pedro and Me and also tackled gay bashing in DC Comic's best selling Green Lantern series.
When it comes to HIV and immigration, I told Winick, I worry Trump is one step away from making that the next ban. It happened to be a timely concern.
“In the time that you and I are having this conversation," Winick points out, "the rumor that is circulating through the media is that Trump is moments away from issuing an executive order to discriminate against LGBT [people]. "I don't know exactly how to express my feelings about this. I am both shocked, horrified, and not surprised at all. Can that possibly be happening? I just know from the moment that happens, and God, I really hope it doesn't, but if it does we will see another massive protest. And I believe we will truly see the first acts of civil disobedience occurring until this is rescinded."
That EO in question would reportedly overturn Obama's executive order banning anti-LGBT discrimination by the federal government and companies that contract with it. Trump later denied such an EO would be issued; but fears remain the administration will add a freedom of religion clause effectively making a loophole for discrimination.
"I actually cannot believe that the conservatives in our government want this," Winick continues. "I know many do. I know so many are just full of hate and discrimination. But even among those hate mongering assholes, they do know that this just mucks up the works. They can't govern when all they're doing is fighting more than half the country on social issue after social issue. And that's what these are. Immigration and the rights of LGBT are not politics. These are social issues. These are human rights. The United States is supposed to lead the world in the human rights business. To say they are fucking it up is an understatement that can't be measured.”
Winick and his wife Pam, were both friends of Zamora’s 22 years ago, when the world got to know him on the show. “We have basically been given license to speak about him because we were there when the world met him," Winick explains. Now he says, "there's thousands of young people who carry his torch. That's who bears his legacy. All Pedro wanted was to empower young people. That's who carries on for him. Pam and I can talk about him. But the real work will come from the young people who Pedro represented. The young people he fought for. Then and even more so now.”
I'm left reflecting on the success of Winick’s best selling children’s book series Hilo and how it represents Zamora’s legacy via his good friend in the way that it’s diverse and hopeful. You can feel Zamora's spirit in it. The third installment in the Hilo book series comes out February 21st. “I actually just finished the fourth one last week," Winick shares. "It's a wonderful ongoing process. I'm very lucky. As far as the overall message, I'm just trying to tell a really fun adventure. It's as much about a mystery as it is about action-adventure, and at the heart of it, it's about friendship. I know that might sound artsy-fartsy , but I will defend that by saying there's lots of burp jokes in there and talking animals."
But, Winick argues, "I don't think Hilo stresses diversity in the book. It just pretty much looks that way. For a long time when it came to storytelling, and unfortunately even now, the default position in creating characters is that they're white and male. I just made a trio of kids who I thought represented the world we live in. And those kids include kids who are Black, Asian, Latino and White. Spoiler: the White kid actually turns out to be a robot from a different planet. But I guess they need to be spoken for too.”
The series is a bestseller, and Winick couldn't be happier. “Truly, I get up every day and I know how lucky I am," he says.
“I followed the friendship between Pedro and Judd [Winick] and always thought it was a beautiful example of two very different people forging a strong, almost fated bond," Barnaby says. "And Judd continues to carry his legacy in his books.”